Lately, every time I watch a presidential debate, turn on the TV news or even pick up a newspaper article on immigrants, the social scientist in me starts to cringe. It starts out as a wrinkle of the nose as I read or hear the words "aliens" or "illegals." My nose wrinkles because actions are illegal, not people, and the word aliens conjures up images of green monsters roaming the planet.
My physical reaction later develops into a tension in the shoulders as the common rhetoric depicts Hispanic workers "sneaking across the border," even though studies show that only two of every five undocumented people residing in the U.S. come here across the U.S./Mexico border, and that U.S. employers have had a heavy hand in actively recruiting these workers in their home countries for decades. Worse yet, this "sneaking" imagery is never complimented by the image of a powerful magnet pulling Mexican workers this direction to fill U.S. jobs. Nor do we get the image of a pressure cooker depicting how NAFTA and other globalization policies have forced Mexican workers to choose to either let their children starve or leave them behind, only to labor in exploitative conditions. As someone who studies immigration for a living, I find the imbalance of information given on the topic disturbing.
My reaction continues to develop as the issue takes the ever-popular turn to blame Hispanic workers for "suppressing wages" and "stealing jobs." There are plenty of studies out there that show that Hispanics add to the local economies through their buying power, but those are rarely mentioned. Further, we rarely hear about the billions of tax dollars that undocumented workers contribute to our Social Security system, but will never take out. Along the common lines of blaming Hispanic workers for working-class struggles, a headline on the front page of the Aug. 31 Herald read: "Hispanics driving down wages, replacing blacks in a number of job fields." Unlike the author of the article, the authors of the study did not conclude that Hispanics were to blame for the decline.
Why blame workers?
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While it may be true that wages are going down at the same time that Hispanic migration is increasing, why do we blame the workers and not the employers who go to great lengths not to have to pay their workers a fair wage? The article said that Hispanic construction workers were paid $10,600 a year less than the state average." Do we imagine that Hispanic workers said to employers, "No, don't pay me as much as other workers; I'm perfectly happy with $10,600 a year less." Instead, that same sentence could read, "Employers exploit Hispanic construction workers by paying them $10,600 a year less than the state average."
Perhaps, rather than viewing Hispanic laborers as wage-stealers, we should view them as overly exploited workers. The Aug. 31 article provides ample evidence of wage discrimination in South Carolina and that discrimination disadvantages all of South Carolina's workers. Yet, we frame immigrants as "aliens" and undocumented workers as "illegals." This divides workers, promoting an "us vs. them" mentality that distracts us all from our common interests.
This is not a new tactic. In the late 19th century, Chinese immigrant laborers were brought into Massachusetts to break strikes led by Irish workers. In past decades, African American factory workers, kept out of unions and many jobs by discrimination, have also been used as a reserve labor force when employers did not want to pay fair wages. When black workers replaced striking white workers in these factories, hostilities were redirected away from the employers toward African Americans. Today, striking may be less common, but unfortunately, as the report on the University of South Carolina study shows, racial scapegoating is not.
Racial scapegoating pits one worker against the next. These tensions benefit employers and may be exacerbated to keep workers from uniting across racial lines. Headlines and political campaigns that blame Hispanics for "suppressing wages" and "stealing jobs" distract Americans from the real culprits: employers who are unwilling -- or are unable because of competition from other businesseses that have cut labor costs by hiring undocumented migrants -- to pay a fair wage. Employers will go to great lengths to recruit the cheapest labor force. Yesterday, it was Chinese workers. Today, it is Hispanic workers. Tomorrow, it may be foreign-born Asian, African or Russian workers.
We need to stop blaming one ethnic group after another for wage problems while the vast majority of large business owners and executives grow wealthier. Workers must look past racial differences and unite to demand structural changes in the U.S. workplace that provide a fair wage for all workers. In the late 1800s, the Irish recognized the need to unite with the Chinese and promote interethnic working-class solidarity. So, too, did Mexican and Japanese farm laborers who united in the 1900s to fight together for a fair wage. In fact, they held strike meetings in both Spanish and Japanese.
Until we realize that the experiences Asian garment workers are similar to the experiences of black garment workers, and the experiences of Mexican construction workers are similar to the experiences of the white and black construction workers, employers will be able to continue to pay lower wages and we will continue to blame one another for this decline. Rather than faulting individual migrants pulled in by strong employer magnets, we should start working to demagnetize their relationship. Fighting for fair-wage legislation combined with tough employer sanctions for recruiting and hiring undocumented workers would be a strong start in halting the wage decline for the working class in South Carolina and elsewhere.
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